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Cox had big role in Braves' success

Three years ago, Bobby Cox could see the nucleus of what he was convinced would be a legitimate contender in the National League West developing in Atlanta.

What wasn't clear in Cox's vision was whether he would have the opportunity to be an up-close witness to the finished product he began to build when he was hired as the Braves' general manager in 1985.

Atlanta was 25-40 after Cox had been moved from the front office back to the manager's job midway through the 1990 season. They finished in last place in the NL West for the fourth time in the five years.

"Under normal circumstances, I probably would have been fired," Cox said.

But Cox survived. Now he can enjoy the rewards of his long-term plan. Having won the NL pennant last year, the Braves are back in the NL playoffs this year. They went into Friday's Game 3 at Pittsburgh with a 2-0 edge in the best-of-seven series.

Vindication has come for Cox and the men he relied on to rebuild the Braves. While some of his lieutenants have been victimized by the front-office purge that followed Cox's return to the dugout, there is a general feeling of satisfaction.

"A lot of people, a lot of scouts, have been vindicated," said Paul Snyder, Cox's right-hand man in player development who has been pushed aside into a "special assignment" role the past two seasons. "In view of a lot of things that have happened, what has transpired on the field the last two years has been rewarding."

What has happened on the field is the Braves have taken a home-grown nucleus and supplemented it with a few quality free agents. Now, baseball "experts" _ looking at a farm system that remains the most talented in baseball _ are predicting the Braves could become a dynasty in what has been an era of parity.

The pitching staff is built around starters Steve Avery, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz and relievers Mike Stanton, Mark Wohlers and Kent Mercker. The offense has been anchored by David Justice and Ron Gant. Smoltz was acquired in a trade for Doyle Alexander in August 1987, the end of what was Smoltz's first pro season. And the rest were draft choices of the Cox regime.

And that nucleus was supplemented before last season by the free-agent signings of third baseman Terry Pendleton, shortstop Rafael Belliard and first baseman Sid Bream.

"I think this shows it was the right approach," Cox said. "Even in 1990, you could tell we were getting close. We'd stayed off the free-agent market the whole time, devoting our resources to player development. The pitching was there, but it didn't show in the stats because we were so bad defensively.

"And the young guys, the Gants and Justices, were coming. Once this team was put together in the spring of 1991, you could tell it was going to be real good."

Now, nobody is questioning Cox's approach.

"The thing I'm thankful for is Bobby is part of it," Snyder said. "I was a player in the Cincinnati system when Dave Bristol was bringing all those young players along, and then he got fired and Sparky (Anderson) became a genius."

Bristol managed the bulk of the 1970s Big Red Machine in the minors, then did the apprentice work with them in the big leagues. But he was fired despite three consecutive winning seasons after a third-place finish in 1969. Anderson took over in 1970, when the Reds won the first of what would be five NL West titles in seven years. They also won four NL pennants and two World Series during that period.

"This is a tribute to Bobby," Snyder said. "Before Bobby, (John) Mullen was the general manager and he didn't have the blessing of (Braves owner) Ted (Turner) the way Bobby did."

Cox was able to get Turner to improve the commitment to player development. The budget for scouting and the minors went from slightly more than $4-million a year to nearly $6-million.

"And Bobby did little things, like putting the minor-leaguers in new uniforms, putting pride back in the organization," Snyder said.

And the organization has responded with big-time results.